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The Kanatous Physiology Lab prints skulls for educational outreach

The printed leopard seal skull (back), a sea lion skull (right), and a penguin skull (front). Photo by: Sarah Ross

For some, science is a complicated subject that is hard to understand. This is often something that they grew up thinking, and it turns out, most people form their opinions of love or distaste towards STEM fields by the age of six. It’s very important to engage these younger minds in the variety of STEM topics there are to offer, and the Kanatous Extreme Physiology Lab is doing just that.

“We design a lot of the education and presentation stuff here,” said Dominique Montano, a student at the Kanatous Extreme Physiology Lab. “We started off with posters, and we got a lot of special specimens in. We got to break down the skeletons and physiology of the extremes, for example, marine mammals.”

Dominique Montano with the printed Leopard seal skull. Photo by: Sarah Ross

Their biggest goal is to connect to students using the best, most interactive teaching tools available, and that often means thinking of ways to engage while educating. Their tool of choice just happens to be a variety of skeletons.

“Skeletons are cool, and it’s a very attractive teaching tool for kids, so being able to let them handle these things and be as detailed as possible, it’s such an incalculable entity,” stressed Montano. “These skeletons offer a really good way of building up the animal from, you know, the ground up to understand the form and the function. That’s really important in anatomy and physiology. Making that as relatable as possible, and having very visual, hands on teaching tools can make the difference better than a picture can. So that’s where the 3D printing came in.”
Sometimes bringing the skeleton to a class of young kids can have its risks, Montano explained. Skeletons are often rare, fragile, and rather pricey, depending on the specimen, which makes them hard to obtain, and even harder to present. This created a hurdle for the lab: how can they present these skeletons without risking an accident that could cost them?

“You can only get so many presentation specimen,” said Montano. “It’s very difficult, and if you want them, they can be really expensive. Casts of skulls can be anywhere from $200 to $3,000, which is kind of difficult when you want to repeatedly present them, and they may break in shipping, but you want to have those materials, so if a 5th grade class sees a skull and they want to handle it, they can’t because it’s so delicate.”

Dominique Montano explaining the parts of the printed Leopard seal skull. Photo by: Sarah Ross

Searching for a way around this, Montano and her team of fellow students tried to think of new, better ways to get specimen so that they could present them safely to children without risking the assets of the lab. That required these new materials to be detailed, yet have the ability to withstand being passed around, handled, or dropped by a plethora of children. That’s when she made her discovery.

“I found these files online of pretty hard to obtain specimens, like the leopard seal and the walrus, and it seemed like a really cost effective way to get something that is not usually accessible to us,” said Dominique. “We get stuff from the marine mammal sanctuaries, but they are usually California Sea Lions, and they probably aren’t going to send a leopard seal to us. So, being able to print these in a cost-effective manner and have something that is durable enough that a kid can drop it and not break a $3,000 skull and also have the ability to keep the size aspect of it was exactly what we needed.”

The printed leopard seal skull (back), a sea lion skull (right), and a penguin skull (front). Photo by: Sarah Ross

They reached out to the Idea2Product lab, and through collaboration, they were able to print their first skull, the skull of a leopard seal that was anatomically accurate and to the actual scale of a real skull.
“Kids can handle it and see how big the eyes are and how the teeth are,” said Montano. “So we can start engineering questions, like what kind of dentition do they have and why would they need this? Why would their eyes be that big? Why did they need to have their jaws open so wide? These animals will be adapted based on where they live.”

There were other methods that the lab could have used to get cheaper specimen, but Montano knew that 3D printing was the way that the lab had to go.

“What attracted me to 3D printing is that it is very detail oriented,” said Montano. “You can see the differences between two skulls, and that’s important for comparison. If you look at a bear skull, you can look and see the similarities to a seal skull, which you can use to explain how convergent evolution comes into play.”

The printed leopard seal skull. Photo by: Sarah Ross

Now that they have their first successful skull print, Montano wants to expand and try new forms of printing to get even more presentation materials. The lab hopes to expand on the process and make bigger, more complex prints, including whole skeletons.

“I would like to use the elastic filament to generate tendons so that we can actually build up and engineer an animal skeleton,” Montano said. “We can use anatomical books to connect correct tendons to points so people can understand the torque, the muscle shortening speed that you need to contract and move an arm and what goes into that. Hopefully soon we will go beyond skeletons, because they are just one small piece, so let’s start thinking bigger about what makes an animal. Physiology is so integrative, and it’s really cool to be able to fish out those little differences between everything.”

Dominique Montano with the printed Leopard seal skull. Photo by: Sarah Ross

Luckily, 5th graders won’t be the only people that will be excited about the new specimen. Montano hopes that they will make some prints that will be in the classrooms here at CSU very soon. In fact, they hope to expand in the future, allowing access to anyone with an internet connection.

“The vertebrates class will get to see this, and anything that Dr. Kanatous teaches will get to see these,” Montano said. “I would like to use the specimens we have and build our own database so people can use it and have three-dimensional access to models, be able to make their own models, and have access for their learning. That could reach even beyond CSU and Colorado to beyond. We want to make education accessible and free, or as free as possible.”

If this project has struck a cord with you, you’re in luck. The Kanatous lab is willing to look at your resume and see if they have a spot for you.

“People can get in contact with us,” Montano said. “If you want to work with this lab, know what it’s about. Read the papers, understand the people and what we are researching. It’s more than playing with skeletons, it’s more of an educational outreach rather than just showing kids skulls. There are always volunteer opportunities, and if they want to be involved and are interested, definitely reach out to Dr. Kanatous. If someone is interested in being part of this, or us presenting for them, definitely reach out.”

If you already have a job, do not fret, there are many classes on campus that will get you your fix of animal anatomy.

“I’m nerding about animals, so take anything with animals, but definitely take Vertebrates,” said Montano. “Try to take anything that is not going to be black and white. It’s about understanding the animal from the cellular level to the entire animals. It can be pretty intensive for sure, but it’s worth it.”

Dr. Shane Kanatous can be reached at Shane.Kanatous@colostate.edu, and more information can be found on their website.  For more projects like this, keep following the Idea2Product User Stories page or follow us on Facebook!